Chief Rabbi David Lau
Chief Rabbi David LauFLASH90

Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau expressed his support Monday for a government plan to remove 40,000 illegal immigrants from Israel, and decried comparisons opponents of the plan have made between Jewish refugees of the Nazi Holocaust and the illegal immigrants living in Israel.

Over the past decade or so, nearly 60,000 illegal immigrants – referred to in Israel as ‘infiltrators – crossed over Israel’s nearly 130-mile border with Egypt. Most of the infiltrators originated from Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan. Upon their arrival in Israel, some requested asylum, citing their home countries’ mandatory military service.

While the Netanyahu government built a border fence spanning the entire Egypt-Israel border, cutting the number of illegal crossings by more than 99% following the fence’s completion in late 2013, voluntary self-deportation programs launched in 2014 managed to reduce the illegal immigrant population by just 15,000 – to slightly over 40,000.

A subsequent program which included force deportation for those who refused to leave the country voluntarily in exchange for a cash payment was blocked by the Supreme Court in August 2017. The court cited Israel’s agreements with African countries which had agreed to accept self-deportees, noting that the deals were limited to those who were voluntarily leaving the country.

In December, however, the Knesset approved a new program, backed by the Netanyahu government, which would pave the way for forced deportations beginning in April 2018.

Relying on a new set of agreements signed between Israel and African countries which will receive deported infiltrators in exchange for compensation from Israel, the program aims to remove the remaining 40,000 illegal immigrants still in Israel.

The new deportation program was greeted by activists in economically distressed neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, where the bulk of the illegal immigrants currently reside. Left-wing activists and prominent members of the American Reform Movement, however, decried the plan, arguing that the illegal immigrants should be granted refugee status, and that their lives will be in jeopardy if they are deported to third-party countries like Rwanda.

Earlier this month, however, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the plan, rejecting claims the illegal immigrants are in fact refugees.

“We are not acting against refugees. We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs. Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst,” Netanyahu said.

Attempts by anti-deportation activists to draw comparisons between the illegal immigrants and Holocaust refugees sparked controversy over the past week, outraging many Holocaust survivors living in Israel.

On Sunday, Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau defended the deportation program and assailed the comparisons being made to Holocaust refugees.

“The State of Israel is obliged to help refugees,” Rabbi Lau told the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot on Sunday. “But let’s distinguish between refugees and work [seeking] migrants.”

“And lets not distort or deny the Holocaust,” Rabbi Lau added.

“We need to bear in mind the [Talmudic] dictum which teaches us that ‘The poor people living in your own city come first’,” said Rabbi Lau. “And we have many people in the State of Israel who need to be cared for – citizens of the State [of Israel]. I’m thinking of the disabled, whom we aren’t always able to support; the Holocaust survivors living amongst us – including some in disgraceful conditions. And I’m also talking about the residents of south Tel Aviv.”

“Aside from all that, we have to distinguish between refugees and people looking for work. The state has a right and an obligation to everything it can on behalf of refugees.”